Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised June 29, 2002 (First written around 1995)

Abstract:  A number of typical distortions regarding the history of psychodrama have appeared in the professional literature both recently and over the last few decades; these deserve to be corrected. This paper reviews the specific errors and discusses the issues involved regarding the proper understanding of psychodrama. Popular misunderstandings are also noted and corrected.

A number of recent works on the history of group psychotherapy have misrepresented the nature of psychodrama and Moreno's contributions. This paper is designed to correct some of these common mistakes.

In a recent book on the history of psychoanalysis in America, for example, Hale (1995: 281) notes that Moreno was "inspired" by Freud. Others have erroneously claimed that Moreno was a "disciple" of Freud, or that he was a "psychoanalyst" who then developed psychodrama. The truth is that psychodrama arose quite independently from psychoanalysis. Moreno was aware of Freud and his method, but found it on the whole highly artificial and in being so limited to verbal interchange, unable to tap into the holistic process of human self-expression. Of course, Moreno shared with depth psychology the general idea of helping patients become more aware of disowned feelings and ideas. In finding psychoanalysis less than compelling, Moreno wasn't being unusually contrary; through the 1930s and well into the 1940s--the period in which Moreno did his most seminal work--a significant percentage of other psychiatrists in Europe and America were similarly doubtful of the claims of the psycho-analysts.

Rosenbaum's History

Another example: Max Rosenbaum, in a recently published book on the history of psychotherapy (Bergner, et al, 1995, p. 175), makes a number of factual errors. For example, he dates the transfer of the journal Sociometry to the American Sociological Association as being nine years earlier than its actual date. He ignores Moreno's role in founding the International Association for Group Psychotherapy, as well as his seminal work on family dynamics as early as 1937. If these were simple errors, they'd be more forgiveable, but in fact, he had been corrected by Zerka Moreno herself--presently the foremost teacher of this approach--back in the 1950s when Zerka had taken courses from Rosenbaum at the New York School for Social Research. There is a high-handed attitude of some who have achieved a measure of status in the field which seems to absolve them of the need to check their facts, especially regarding issues where they may be not so favorably inclined. As an example of this attitude, Rosenbaum, on meeting Dr. Moreno at a psychiatric meeting, dismissed Zerka's  corrections: "Your wife gave me a lot of trouble back then." The idea that he may have been mistaken seems not to have occurred to him!

A third example: In a chapter on the history of group psychotherapy in another recent book (Freedheim, 1992: 699-701), Rosenbaum and his co-authors Lakin and Roback make a number of further errors: On page 699, they characterized both Trigant Burrow and Moreno as "social" treatments, which in fact completely ignores the depth of intrapsychic dynamics which are addressed in the writings of both these innovators. Burrow was the first to really challenge the tendency of what today might be called "ego-addiction," and explored the psychosomatic correlates of narcissistic traits and their prevalent--yet not healthy--operation as a major factor in neurosis. (This insight was also similar to Adler's, though arrived at through an entirely original process of discovery.) And anyone familiar with psychodrama--which the authors are obviously not--know that while Moreno was remarkable in being able to bridge the social and the personal, this integration occurred to the enrichment of the awareness of intrapsychic dynamics.

On page 700, the authors then reveal their bias by placing quotation marks around "psychodrama," while not doing likewise for such approaches as gestalt therapy or transactional analysis. Yet psychodrama was a well known approach at least twenty years before the other methods were even developed. They go on to distort Moreno's work, distilling out certain themes and ignoring others, as in the following items:

 -- "Psychodrama has persisted as a significant influence on the practice of group psychotherpay from early in the century." Not so. It really emerged as a therapy only in the 1930s, and the rise of psychoanalysis and that school's way of excluding alternative approaches kept this most powerful methodology from having more than a minor influence on the mainstream of group therapy until the last third of the century, when alternative approaches of all kinds became more prevalent.

However, psychodrama has played a more significant but still largely unappreciated role in the evolution of the "T-Group," sensitivity training, and the encounter group of the 1970s, even though some of these trends were also taken over on one hand by the Tavistock method and on the other hand by Rogers and other humanistic psychologists. It also provided the ground for many active approaches in therapy, inlucing Family Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, T.A., and social skills and assertion training, mainly through technique. Yet many of its principles remain ignored by these fields.

   -- While Moreno was not particularly popular in psychiatry, he was nevertheless a member in good standing in the American Psychiatric Association, the field's major organization, and even elected as a Fellow--which recognizes a significant contribution--certainly not an "outsider," as the authors characterized him. As the founder of the International Association for Group Psychotherapy, he had to collaborate with many of the leaders in psychiatry, as well as in other related disciplines. For example, Moreno was associated with Jules Masserman and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann in the 1950s in the process of editing a series of books titled Progress in Psychotherapy.

   -- The authors become totally confused in their chronology. In fact, the precursors to psychodrama involve a form of social therapeutics and a vision of a more renewed mode of theatre in society: Moreno as an avocation experimented with a troupe of actors who improvised--indeed, this was perhaps the first form of improv theatre! (He also designed the first theatre-in-the-round!). All this occurred after (not before, as in the book) the Great War, in 1921-1923. These precursors, the "living newspaper" and the "Theatre of Spontaneity," gave rise to an awareness that the actors themselves experienced therapeutic benefits from the process of creating roles.

   -- A decade later these insights gradually evolved into psychodrama. Meanwhile, Moreno had also become engaged in developing group psychotherapy as a method of genuine interaction among all participants, not just relationships between the group members and the leader-as-authority-on-psychology. Moreno introduced the term "group psychotherapy" in 1932 at the American Psychiatric Association, and worked with experiments in group dynamics in the early 1930s. His applications of psychodrama to families began in the late '30s.

  -- Though the authors are accurate in noting that Moreno's seminal work regarding the importance of the interpersonal field and family dynamics, this was hardly the essence of his contribution. It's like saying that psychoanalysis dealt with distortions in cognition--which it does, but that's only a small part of the process. Moreno had a broad scope. In addition to bridging the sociological and psychological dimensions, and going further to recognize the place of philosophy, spiritual attitudes, and what is now generally called "existential" concerns, Moreno's theories certainly also addressed intra-psychic dynamics.

 One example of Moreno's interest in individual psychodynamics is his noting the need to address unfulfilled imaginative desires. If people are to free themselves from the compelling hold of their complexes, they must be first expressed and at least symbolically gratified or re-directed to some extent. Insight is only a small part of the cathartic process; also intrinsic to healing are self-expression and self-affirmation through action and the attainment of a wholeness through the integration of imagination, emotion, action, and group relations. Perhaps these understandings were too subtle for the authors of the article, so apparently they plucked out one of the more obvious themes. But in their doing so, Moreno comes across as a somewhat simplistic theoretician. While Moreno was far from systematic--and of course this interfered with readers appreciating his genius--he was anything but simplistic.

  -- Another indication of either misunderstanding or thinly veiled disdain is the peculiar use of quotation marks around basic terms--even around the term "psychodrama" itself, as mentioned above. For example, "His [Moreno's] "theatre" provided a setting..." implies that psychodrama is a form of theatre, with the implication of it being no different from the artificiality and histrionics of much of established scripted, performance-oriented theatre. This misses the point that psychodrama is quite different from theatre in a number of ways, just as psycho-analysis is different from the Catholic rite of "confession." For instance, psychodrama can be and is frequently used as a facilitating procedure in the course of ordinary group psychotherapy.

Other ways psychodrama differs from theatre include (1) protagonists portray themselves, not some scripted role written by another person; (2) the process is improvised, not rehearsed, and the activity of becoming involved spontaneously both circumvents many habitual patterns of defense and opens the mind to resources of surprising creativity and insight. These approaches were designed to counter the phonier aspects of theatre. Also, Moreno applied his methods in organizational development, milieu therapy, with couples, and in other ways beyond the classical quasi-theatrical enactment.

  -- In describing the closing process, Rosenbaum et al talk about how the audience further analyze the problem for the presumed benefit of the central person. In fact, the emphasis is on personal sharing while analytical interpretations are actively discouraged. It is exactly that kind of presumption that Moreno opposed, so why is he accused of engaging in it? And as for the choice of the term "presumed," that's just the kind of offhand dig that has no place in a supposedly intellectual article. To throw in that phrase is as inappropriate as saying, for example, that analysts occasionally make interpretations "for the presumed benefit of their patients."

  -- The next paragraph on page 701 at the top is simply psychobabble. Of course transferences occur among the members, but the phrase, "distinct traces of psychodrama are powerfully reflected in..." is meaningless. What needs to be said is that psychodrama as a method offers a direct approach to exploring transferential feelings in terms of their origins in earlier family experiences, with group members playing the roles of a protagonist's parent, sibling, or other significant figure. This clarifies and defuses the noxious impact of unresolved transferential group dynamics.

Anthony's History

Another example: E. James Anthony, a well-respected analyst, in his 1971 textbook chapter on the history of group psychotherapy, in describing Moreno's contributions, revealed his knowledge of psychodrama to be pretty muddled regarding its deeper, inner coherence. He overemphasized secondary ideas such as action-orientation and Aristotle's ideas of catharsis. He claimed as a seeming concession that psychoanalysis borrowed the term "acting-out" from Moreno. I seriously question the accuracy of this and know of no evidence to support it, because (1) Moreno hardly uses the term; and when he does, it is so completely different in its meaning. Also, "acting-out" was used widely in the psychoanalytic literature long before almost anyone in that field knew about psychodrama.

Anthony then went on to "analyze" both psychoanalysis and psychodrama as being basically "voyeuristic" and "exhibitionistic," revealing that rather dismaying habit of analysts' pathologizing everything, impugning its face value by detecting the derivative of some base instinct. He then claims baldly without any rational explanation that "catharsis has a tendency to interfere with the acquisition of insight." There is simply no evidence that this is so, and a good deal of evidence suggesting the opposite (Jackson, 1994).

Anthony's definition of role playing: "..in which the patient assumes the role of another person, thus allowing him to try out new types of behavior..." is either clumsy or uninformed, because simple role training in one's own role is one of the more common forms, and shifting roles is for other purposes.

"The theatre of spontaneous man is a brilliant idea," Anthony wrote, "and it certainly deserves a place in the history and practice of group psychotherapy. But whether all the complex resistances that make up modern civilized man can be dissolved by means of a simple dramatic device is open to question." Here, again, one can detect the author's implicit and naive accusation of oversimplification--an accusation that psychoanalysts flung casually at almost all approaches other than their own. In fact, psychodrama is at least as complex as psychoanalysis in the variables and issues to be dealt with, though perhaps without the heavy overlay and mystique of a jargon-filled, dense metapsychology.

After praising some of Moreno's contributions and restating Moreno's ideas as "claims"--a choice of words which make Moreno seem unrealistically narcissistic, implying that the 'claims' are unrealistic--Anthony then finishes with this statement: "To many group psychotherapists, he represents a detrimental influence that has split the group world in two, seducing many a group psychotherapist from the careful and patient practice of classical group psychotherapy and leading him into wildly exciting, highly controversial, short cut methods of treatment." Well, first of all, at the time of Anthony's writing, psychoanalysis was still in its heyday and the group world was almost overwhelmingly dominated by analytic approaches--certainly not split "in two." (Indeed, other group therapy approaches such as Transactional Analysis, and Gestalt Therapy had larger professional sub-populations, while psychodramatists in the late 1960s and early 1970s remaining a distinctly small minority.) Worse, Anthony seemed unable to grasp the idea that a psychodramatist might also be careful and patient-- notice the loaded semantics here. Dr. Anthony, an analyst, seems to express a common blind spont of devotees of that approach in being unable even to imagine any credibile objection to psychoanalytic plodding, the ambiguity of non-structured passivity, and the admitted inappropriateness of psychoanalytic methodology for many if not most people who "aren't good candidates." (Of course, more recent critiques of psychoanalysis now are plentiful, but generally they're not written by textbook authors.)

The characterization of psychodrama as a short-cut approach which is wild, highly extroverted, etc., simply is grossly untrue. There are a number of rather introverted, gentle, and anything but wild psychodramatists who are quite aware of the time it takes for fundamental personality change. We in psychodrama, however, are also aware that a more eclectic methodology is far more effective and less costly in the long run, plus it draws its clients into a far more vital, energized, and self-expanded state of mind.

Alexander's "History"

Finally, consider the History of Psychiatry, (Alexander & Selesnik, 1966: 335), in which Moreno was mentioned in a discussion of group therapy, and that in a section called "social psychiatry." The authors wrote, "Group work was used in the late 1920s in Vienna by J.L. Moreno, who began to use dramatic classes with disturbed children. Samuel R. Slavson also utilized play therapy in his group work with children...in the 1930s." Psychodrama is not even mentioned. Those who are knowledgable about Moreno know that he did indeed experiment with improvisational dramatics in the park with (healthy) children around 1908-1911--not the late 1920s, and this was more related to his interest in the nature of spontaneity and vitality than any particular intention to "work with groups" in the sense of psychiatric treatment. By 1925 he had emigrated to the USA, and his major contributions to group psychotherapy in the early 1930s primarily addressed the need for adults in prisons to be placed in work or living groups with others according to rational criteria–a precursor to his method of sociometry; or, another expression of his sociometric ideas, consulting regarding similar placements of teenagers in residential treatment centers, along with some beginnings of the ideas of role training.

Alexander & Seleznik's statement about Slavson is generally accurate in description if not timing: Beginning as a non-medical volunteer with no special training in psychology or psychotherapy, Samuel Slavson did begin with a rather permissive form of activity play therapy with small groups of disturbed youngsters in the mid-1930s. He felt challenged by Moreno's claims and associated himself with the then-rising star of psychoanalysis, in alignment with which he then went on to become a pioneer of psychoanalytic group therapy.

Ignoring the Second Generation

Another common error in psychiatric historiography is to treat the work of an innovator as primary texts, with all commentaries and later developments as merely derivative. This reveals the bias of such writers as being more like ideologues of a Western religious movement than of modern science, since the latter assumes that knowledge evolves. As a result, historians disguise their laziness by attending only to primary sources, the writings of the innovators themselves.

For example, Campbell in his 1981 Fifth Edition of his (and L. Hinsie's) Psychiatric Dictionary--considered a "classic" text-- defines and describes psychodrama according to Moreno's first article on the subject in Sociometry in 1937, noting such terms as "physiodrama," etc. Elsewhere, the editor of this dictionary includes such terms as "sociogram" and "sociometry"--quoting again from that same first publication--, but curiously omits listing Moreno himself (!). To reveal its bias, this dictionary does include a number of names of turn-of-the-century neuro-pathologists who are for the most part far more obscure in the field. Nor was the term "role playing" listed. (To be fair, Campbell also left out most of the major psychoanalysts. He's obviously grounded in a neuro-psychiatric tradition which carries forth the bias of the books' first edition in the 1940s, before psychoanalysis became well-known.)

A problem with this reliance on the early work of the major innovator of a movement or "school" is that these pioneers are often weak in certain role components of writing. Some don't write much, like Adolf Meyer--most of the extant writings were taken from lecture notes by students; others don't write well, such as Otto Rank or J.L. Moreno. In such cases, it's easy to get the wrong impression.

The obvious answer is to review also the writings of those who more systematically develop the innovator's ideas, in itself no mean task. And also, some of those who popularize the innovator's ideas. Ah, but how to assess which developers and popularizers are doing a "good job" in capturing the most relevant and essential elements of the original insight, and which developers or popularizers are missing the point?

Nevertheless, many historiographers of psychology and psychotherapy seem to be quite ignorant of the existence of any texts which could help them appreciate the key themes of the innovator's work. They thereby deny their readership a truly representative picture of the real insight of their subjects. (For a more accurate history of Moreno's innovation and the contributions of others in psychodrama, see Blatner's recently revised text, Foundations of Psychodrama, which also has numerous references to other more accurate writings.)

Historian Bias

I must risk sharing my suspicions that the authors' bias tends to obscure this process. If one believes in an ideology, it requires an extraordinary force of character to present ideas which would suggest that that ideology is limited or that alternative beliefs might embody even more compelling insights.

As mentioned above regarding the work of Burrow as well as Moreno, the larger point is that many psychoanalysts view the contributions of those outside their own camp as superficial, derivative, or limited; yet they frequently fail to delve into the deeper meanings or resonances of these ideas.

Popular Distortions

Some phrases catch on because of their general associations, even when these are actually off the point. "Acting out" is one such example, referring in most situations to mere rambuctuous misbehavior, rather than the more precise defense mechanism of reducing tension through behavior rather than through words and reflection.

Psychodrama has become similarly degraded in the popular literature. It has come to mean simply a "psychologically weighty drama." Popular newsmagazines will use it to describe a moving and complex play or movie, or even an event in real life. The problem here involves not merely the dilution of a powerful idea, nor merely an affront to a professional guild, but rather it degrades the process and so misleads the public regarding the therapeutic potential of conscious enactment.

 To me, the essence of psychodrama is that moment in which the protagonist marshalls the powers of the observing self to consider alternative possibilities. It is not just the enactment, but rather the placing of this enactment within the mental framework of an exploration or experiment. The individual is thus raised from the role of one immersed in a role to the "meta-role" position of one who can stop the role behavior, change it, re-negotiate it, or otherwise comment on the predicament.

 Such moments of true insight and potential transformation are all too rare in literature. When they do occur, they are generally not spelled out. But in psychodrama a specific procedure is utilized to achieve this end. To say a piece of drama or literature was a psychodrama should mean that the protagonist consciously, explicitly engaged in playing a role in order to observe the effectiveness of that performance, and then to compare that interaction with other standards, reevaluate beliefs, or practice even more useful responses.

 It would be great theatre indeed if we could begin to see stories in which one or several of the main characters would strive towards greater value by using psychodramatic methods! The audience could see that mature development and at times startling acts of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, integration, and constructive problem-solving were possible among ordinary human beings. And more, the audience could see how these changes were effected, how people could have a good talk with themselves, and in this process, align their attitudes and behaviors with their highest values instead to following automatic habits of mind and behavior in the sadistic, passive agressive, narcissistic, schizoid, or otherwise ultimately self-defeating (and socially degrading) ways they learned when they were still immature.


 Sadly, many of our colleagues learn about psychodrama through the distorted lens of its opponents, mostly historiographers with a clear and uncritical committment to psychoanalysis. It will be necessary to locate these chapters and their authors and prevail upon them to revise, and to use contemporary authorities in dialog or as co-authors to aid in those revisions so that meaningful and respectful presentations may be offered of alternative viewpoints.


Alexander, F. G. & Selesnick, S. T. (1966). The history of psychiatry. New York: Harper & Row.

Anthony, E. J. (1971). The history of group psychotherapy (pp 15-16), in H.I. Kaplan & B. Sadock (1971), Comprehensive group psychotherapy. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory & practice (4th ed.). New York: Springer.

Campbell, R. J. (1981). Psychiatric Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hale, N. G. (1995). The rise and crisis of psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, 1917-1985. New York & Oxford (England): Oxford University Press.

Rosenbaum M., Lakin, M., & Roback, H. B. (1992). Psychotherapy in groups (Chapter 21), in D. K. Freedheim (Ed.), History of psychotherapy: A century of change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rosenbaum, M. & Patterson, K. M. (1995). Group psychotherapy in historical perspective. In B. Bongar & L. E. Beutler (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychotherapy. New York: Oxford University Press.

For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com

Return to top